What’s In A Name
As T. S. Eliot pointed out:
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games …
I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
If it is so very important to name a cat – then how much more significant is it to name a person? That’s a rhetorical question.
The science that studies names in all their aspects is called onomastics (or onomatology—an obsolete word). The subject of this science is broad because almost everything can have a name and because the study of names theoretically encompasses all languages, all geographical and cultural regions, and all historical epochs. https://www.britannica.com/topic/name/The-science-of-onomastics
All that to say – names are important.
Historically, one can’t really search back to the beginnings how the first cave folks named themselves and their off springs.
Neithhotep is the earliest named woman in history, who held a position of great importance in Ancient Egypt. We are likely more familiar with the names in the Old Testament. The word Adam in Hebrew means ‘man’. And the meaning of the first woman Eve is ‘to breathe’. From early days then, names were chosen having been assigned with intention, and meaning. If we look into historic family records, ancestors’ given names were often repetitive, over generations. Was that a means to continue the prominence of the blood line. A challenge for genealogical research, to be sure.
Lest we forget, considerable negativity could be traced back to those who invaded other countries and cultures. Colonization meant that the newcomers did not honour the names of the natives, and hence the renaming to European common names – as sadly experienced by Indigenous peoples here and elsewhere. And later, immigrants themselves from other countries and cultures frequently had both their given and family names mutilated by border bureaucrats. Did they choose not to understand or be bothered to scribe accurately what was told them? Or was that the universe’s delayed retribution?
Then there were the folk who themselves changed the names they were given at birth. Consider the various authors, who chose pseudonyms. Take for example Mary Ann Evans and Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin (alright that one needs changing) and the Bronte sisters to Bell Brothers, George Eliot and George Sand. The sad state of affairs why each of these women saw the necessity to change was dictated by the era in which they lived. The work of male writers was accepted as valid and that of females were either trivialized or dismissed.
Names were changed for other reasons – for example during the golden years of Hollywood the brown haired Norma Jean Mortenson became the blonde bombshell after her name was changed to Marilyn Monroe. And not only the name but also the voice of ruggedly handsome Roy Harold Scherer Jr. became the sophisticated Rock Hudson. Caryn Elaine Johnson became Whoopie Goldberg. Stevland Hardaway Morris became Stevie Wonder.
The hippy days saw peculiar given names of offspring like Sun and Moon and River. And even later, Apple and Daisy Dove. Spring forward to these days when the names of girls have taken on what might have been seen as masculine names in days gone by, like Parker and Laurence. Sometimes these names represent the family name of the mother, other times, who knows the reason.
All that to say there have been major shifts relating to names. Keifer Sutherland, Macaulay Culkin though unusual names – were not changed. Nor have the names of Idris Elba (from Idrissa Akuna Elba) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch changed dramatically. But then to contradict – there is Lady Gaga who is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanottaor and Iggy Azalea who is Amethyst Kelly.
Most notably the stolen names of Indigenous peoples have been reclaimed and now proudly are spoken and written. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has launched a process for Indigenous peoples, residential school survivors and their families to reclaim their Indigenous names on replacement passports, travel documents, citizenship certificates and permanent resident cards – free of charge until May 30, 2026.
Each of our names is personal and meaningful. They were either chosen by our parents or we chose them ourselves, to represent who we are, who we have become. Mine was deliberately changed at birth by my Father from Lidia, my Mom’s given name. It reflects my Hungarian heritage. After years of being called Kathy, Kitty, Katie, Kata and others, I reclaimed Katalin at university. Most people still have trouble pronouncing it and spelling it. But hey – I have a Name Day each November 25 – most folks do not.
©Katalin Kennedy – November 2022